A New Testament for a Multipolar World

26 march 2003

Vyacheslav Nikonov, Doctor of History, President of the Polity Foundation,  Deputy Chairman of the Editorial Board of the Russia in Global Affairs journal.

Resume: The new book by Yevgeny Primakov lays out his views on the major contemporary problems, such as terrorism and Islamic extremism, the Israeli-Arab conflict, and the role of the United States in today’s world. He also discusses scenarios for a future world order and Russia’s place in it.

“After the attacks of Sept. 11 the world underwent a radical change.” While this may be the belief of many people, it is definitely not the belief of Yevgeny Primakov. Primakov knew better than anyone else how dangerous the world had been before the Sept. 11 tragedy, so it did not come unexpected to him the way it did to other people. In his new book Primakov, a prominent Russian politician (former prime minister, foreign minister and head of the country’s Foreign Intelligence Service) and an insightful analyst, appears as a brilliant writer and very much the same Primakov who once ordered his Washington-bound aircraft to turn around over the Atlantic to protest against the NATO bombings of Yugoslavia.

In concise and graphic terms, Primakov lays out his views on the major contemporary problems, such as terrorism and Islamic extremism, the Israeli-Arab conflict, and the role of the United States in today’s world. He also discusses scenarios for a future world order and Russia’s place in it.

Primakov argues that modern terrorism has two distinctive features. Firstly, it is shifting from governmental structures (Iran, Libya, Iraq) to separatist religious and political movements. He points out that al Qaeda and the Taliban were the unwanted by-products of the CIA and Pakistani army intelligence, rather than some creation from Baghdad or Teheran. Secondly, terrorism is spreading far beyond national frontiers, as terrorists are now acting globally. A real or potential access to weapons of mass destruction, information technologies, not to mention the equally important access to increasingly greater financial resources, makes the threat of extremist groups, and terrorism in general, all the more severe.

Challenging Samuel P. Huntington’s concept, which, in Primakov’s view, allows for a new division of the world along cultural and religious lines, the author defends the Islamic world. In his words, it is possible now to “observe the modernization of Islamic society.” The great majority of this society does not support the extremist forces while the “new generation of Muslims, unlike the previous one, is much more vocal in its defense of democratization, pluralism and the freedom of expression” (p. 47). Primakov’s ideas are of no small importance for modern political thought; he has an optimistic outlook for the future of Islamic democracy, which is already capable of assimilating traditional values, as well as cooperating with the international campaign against terrorism. One essential requirement involving the war on terrorism is the formation of an agreement that would commit states to refusing shelter to extremist organizations on their territories, as well as avoiding the obsolete formula of “self-determination up to the point of separation.” The various national intelligence services should engage in information exchange, together with its mutual analysis.

On a slightly different note, Primakov believes that the main reasons for the continuing failure to settle the Mideast conflict are the position of the United States, which is geared toward separatist solutions, and Russia’s actual exclusion from the Mideast peace process. Meanwhile, he candidly reveals that the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, when he headed it, was very well informed about the development of the secret negotiations between the Israelis and their Palestinian counterparts. And what’s more, he did not receive his intelligence from the Palestinians (p. 58).

Another aggravating factor in this crisis derives from the position of the Israeli leaders, who have long declined Russia’s involvement in the peace settlement (Shimon Peres personally told Primakov of the need to have only one intermediary – the U.S.). From the time Ariel Sharon – “who never renounced the use of terror” – came to power, the Israeli side has been blocking all progress at a resolution, and brushing aside the very thought of a Palestinian state. Hence, the bitter attitude toward Arafat and the ongoing attempts to isolate him. However, it goes without saying that the author strongly condemns all terrorist attacks against Israel.

Primakov identifies the key to peace in the region with an “external” force that will take upon itself the task of “not just renewing the Israeli-Palestinian talks but elaborating a compromise peace plan”

(p. 86). In this context, he espouses the efforts of the Mideast Quartet (the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union) and their “Road Map to Mideast Peace,” which provides for a phased withdrawal of the Israeli troops from the occupied territories, an active engagement with the Palestinians in the fight against terrorism, Palestinian elections, the establishment of a Palestinian state with provisional borders and, finally, a comprehensive settlement of the Palestine status issue. The latter problem is the most complicated one: the final resolution of the issues concerning Palestinian state borders, the status of Jerusalem, refugees and the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories can only be imposed on the conflicting parties by the world community.

Consistent in his attitude toward U.S. policies, Primakov denounces its unilateral actions, its concept of humanitarian interventions and preemptive strikes. This approach runs counter to international law, to the principles concerning the territorial integrity of sovereign states and to the recognition of non-interference in internal affairs. This policy circumvents those mechanisms established by the UN and has proven to be counter-productive in solving international problems.

In proposing a new level of cooperation with the U.S. after the tragedy of Sept. 11, Russia was motivated not only through sympathy toward the stricken nation, and the mutual interest in apprehending Osama bin Laden and breaking the Taliban, but also by the desire to interrupt a string of unilateral security actions on the part of Washington. Primakov believes that by embarking on such cooperative efforts with the U.S., Vladimir Putin was taking great political risks given the anti-American sentiments persisting in Russian society and the political Establishment, particularly in regard to the U.S. military presence within close proximity to Russia’s border. While admitting that the reorientation of some CIS countries toward the U.S. was due to a series of miscalculations in the former policy decisions of Russia, the author certainly has no supportive words to greet this transition, nor does he welcome the military presence of the U.S. in Central Asia and the South Caucasus. This move has already changed the geopolitical situation in favor of the U.S., specifically by strengthening its ability for accessing the Caspian energy resources, as well as finalizing the “process of surrounding China with American military bases” (p. 112). It is exactly against this Central Asian context that the author reinforces his old idea of establishing a “stabilizing triangle” between Russia, China and India.

Primakov speaks of the poor efficiency of the U.S. antiterrorist operation in Afghanistan: the Talibs have dispersed and are now in hiding; there is no rapprochement between the Pushtun population and the Northern Alliance, which puts the Hamid Karzai government in a precarious position. Furthermore, drug production is on the rise, while the situation in Pakistan has grown ever more complicated.

Primakov voices an even stronger criticism regarding the so-called “axis of evil” designation, together with the U.S. administration’s intensifying plans to combat terrorism, especially those involving strikes on Iraq, which presents no significant threat. “The perpetuation of the antiterrorist war is fully in line with the new military doctrine of the U.S., which centers on preemptive strikes against adversaries arbitrarily made up by the U.S. itself” (pp. 135-136). If the use-of-force policy prevails, Washington will run the risk of losing its broad international support, which is absolutely indispensable for building a global antiterrorist coalition – the only viable force capable of addressing the challenges of terrorism.

Primakov’s views on the contemporary world order rest upon the doctrine of a multipolar world. It could hardly be otherwise with an individual who has been one of the most ardent advocates of such a doctrine, in both theory and in practice. The collapse of the bipolar world structure has caused many other changes on the international stage: Europe and Japan are becoming more independent players; China has become more powerful; there is a broad diversification within Russia’s foreign policy; the world has seen the emergence of new nuclear powers (Pakistan, India). Finally, there is a growing discontent with the unilateral decisions and actions of the United States. Despite the U.S. claims to the status of the world’s only superpower, there appear to be escalating tendencies toward “not a single-polar world, but rather a multipolar world” (p. 141). The U.S. tries to thwart this trend by promoting NATO enlargement, with a view to tightening its control over the “European center,” and by developing the National Missile Defense system. It is also attempting to downplay the role of the United Nations. Primakov flatly discards the idea of a single-polar world in which “inequalities between the states will manifest themselves mainly through antagonistic forms” (p. 155). Such order is a utopia since “even the dominating power will not be in a position, historically speaking, to establish a single-polar world order” (p. 155). What the world community really needs is a new spirit of cooperation, improved living standards beyond the “golden billion,” and agreements on such closely related issues as the demilitarization of outer space, the development of joint anti-missile defense (AMD) systems and the prevention of nuclear proliferation by all possible means. It is important, however, that the broad gamut of “all possible means” should be spared the outright use of military force against those pretenders to ‘nuclear club membership.’

Primakov definitely sees Russia as one of the centers of the multipolar world. The bottom-line question is: will Russia be the leading player on the international stage, or will it be one of the followers? He describes in rather unflattering terms the “pseudo-liberals” of the 1990s to whom the West showed its preference. He decries the foreign policy initiatives under Andrei Kozyrev who “maintained that the world is divided into two parts – a civilized one and a ‘savage’ one – and that Russia, following its defeat in the Cold War, should join the ‘club of civilized states’ and play by the rules of this club bossed by the U.S.” (p. 184). In Primakov’s view, a secondary role for Russia is not acceptable: suffice it to say that not a single Russian leader in favor of such a role would be able to stay in power long.

At the same time, those who support the values of “liberalism and statehood,” with whom Primakov seems to identify, do not rule out the possibility of a rapprochement with the U.S. Yet, the future of Russia’s cooperation with the U.S. depends upon the latter’s moves today when “positive changes in the relations between the two states commenced.” Primakov’s main conclusion is: “Russia can be a reliable partner of the United States if the U.S. comes to terms with the real prospects of a multipolar world, abandons the idea that it can and should solve major issues of international stability and security independently and if it gives up attempts to draft a code of conduct in the international arena for other countries” (p. 189).

But what if the U.S. refuses to act in this way? What alternative foreign policy can Russia adopt if the U.S. rejects the concept of a multipolar world completely or in part? In a world of a zero-sum game the answer would be all too clear. In our much more complex world there seems to be no alternative to Russia’s integration into the global system, which is unthinkable without a high level of constructive cooperation with the leading countries of the West.

Last updated 26 march 2003, 16:55

} Page 1 of 5